Folks Talkin’ Bout Comics: Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson Part 1

Paul: I’m going to chat my way through all 10 volumes of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan with my good pal, Forrest Karbowski, who’ll also be joining me on Read This Comic! as a contributor. Forrest?

Forrest: For those who don’t know, Transmetropolitan is a gonzo-esque sci-fi comic about a muckraking journalist named Spider Jerusalem who writes acerbic editorials that – through the power of words -actually have the potential to inform and change minds. (Like we said, it’s science fiction.) While the future society he lives in is exaggerated to the extreme, the stories often have real-world parallels to issues that we face today – and like all good sci-fi, it has some interesting conjectures about problems humanity will face in the future, too. Oh, and if that doesn’t make you want to read it (what’s wrong with you?) did we mention it looks like this:
 
 
For those of you who haven’t read the series, be aware that there will be some spoilers, due to the rambly nature of our conversation.

Paul: There’s lots of words here, and we jump around a bunch, but hopefully it’ll give you a sense of how much we both like this series and how much there is to get out of it. For today’s post, we’re starting with volumes 1 and 2. I also apologize for the crappiness of the images taken with my iPhone. I’ll try and figure out something better, but in the meantime, take it as more motivation to go out and buy the comic.

Forrest: I should apologize because I didn’t make it through the third volume, just the first two. We can totally talk about the third volume, I just might be a little rusty.

Paul: yeah, we’ll see how far we get..there’s plenty to talk about in the first two.

Forrest: Absolutely. It turns out the second volume has almost all of my favorite issues.
Paul: I think that’s one of my favorite things about the series…is how substantial it is…I was surprised at how much happened so soon. For example, Ellis gives a great sense of Channon in the second volume, we really get to know her quickly.  It feels like she’s Spider’s assistant for much longer.
Forrest:  That’s true, I was actually surprised to see her go – I thought I’d skipped a volume. I was surprised at how many bread crumbs were dropped as early as the first volume – the Smiler, the foglets…
At this point, we took a brief foray into catching up on our personal and work lives. Now, we get into the thick of things:
Paul: Let’s start off with “what’s Transmetropolitan like? What kind of reader/consumer is going to enjoy this?” I think for starters, Hunter S. Thompson fans are an easy sell.
Forrest: Yeah – I’ve always described it as “Hunter S. Thompson in the sordid, unwashed future, and he kills people.” Re-reading it, I was surprised at how foul it is – not that it bothered me, but it’s certainly not for the easily offended.
Paul: Aaaand, I’m gonna make a stretch and say these books fall into the genre of Hard Sci-Fi?
Forrest: That’s an excellent point! (Note: Forrest LOVES Hard Sci-Fi. My emphasis on this is 73% erection joke based – ‘Powerful Paul’). I really think a lot of the technology in Transmet, even the society… despite being shown through a warped lens, everything feels very plausible. For example, I think the foglets (or something similar) is very much humanity’s future (if we last that long). Ellis tweeted recently something about how Google won’t send him a pair of Google Glasses because he made Spider do horrible things with them in Transmetropolitan.
Paul: I would say the worst things he did were to a) tell the uncensored truth and b) record sex with his assistant, Yelena.
Forrest: True! Somehow I think our society would be more upset about A than B, of course.
Paul: This is very true, though American society always wants to believe in the truth of the principled, muckracking journalist.
Forrest: I think that’s true of us in the past, although I’m not so certain in the age of noisy, instant newsbites and internet scrolls.
Paul: Hmmm…but I think there’s still an undercurrent of “you’re not telling us the truth” that allows sanitized versions of characters like Spider to catch on, while the public may not want to actually take it in. Like that movie with Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte where they’re reporters on the run…
Forrest: True. the people who swear by Fox news probably actually think those guys are giving the unfiltered truth that no one else has the balls to cover.
Paul: (continuing my recollection of this Nick Nolte/Julia Roberts film) …and she shows her boobs to a boyscout troop.
Forrest: I haven’t seen that movie but I am going to now!
Paul: It may exist. I could also be imagining it.
Forrest: Haha.  Sidebar – (NOTE: This is where we actually get back on track)there’s a great image in issue 1, page 5. The panel where Spider says “I decided to be depressed for a little while. ” I love the visual pun of the telephone covering his penis.

Because A) it’s hilarious, and B) Spider treats communication like his genitalia – he has to spread it far and wide, at every opportunity.

Paul: For all the nudity in the books, I don’t believe we ever see Spider’s penis. So, for the folks who are looking to see a journalist’s genitals, sorry. Another artistic note here, and I still haven’t figure out entirely what it means yet, is that we have a Spider that looks very Alan Moore-ish.
Forrest: I thought of that as well. I don’t know if Ellis and Moore are friends, although I’d imagine they are.
Paul: It could be an expression of the idea of the hermit writer, which Moore essentially is, though Thompson also spent a great deal of his career living and writing remotely…so maybe it’s just a friendly reference.
Forrest: Can I mention that as brilliant as Ellis’ writing is, what really drew me to these books in the first place is the amazing artwork by Darick Robertson. Maybe you can do better than me at describing his style – it’s almost like cartoon realism? That sounds stupid, but it’s what comes to mind for me.
Paul: There may be a better term for it, but it sounds about right. So much is left “unsaid” about the world and left to Robertson’s background characters, advertisements…I don’t know if Ellis worked ‘full script’* or not, but still, it’s on Robertson to draw all these insane details into the background…the constant streams of television and advertising, the Sex Puppets…oh how I love the Sex Puppets.
Forrest: The art does a lot of the world building. I kept thinking “Blade Runner” when I looked at the images, but that’s stupid because it’s nothing like Blade Runner. It’s bright and gaudy and loud and alive, where Blade Runner is dark and stylized and noirish.
Paul: But Blade Runner does have that explosion of screens and advertising.
Forrest: That’s true…they’re similar in certain ways, but I think Blade Runner is an obvious touchstone because it’s the only other reference we have…the energy of the cities are different. But then, the energy of the stories are very different, so that’s fitting. I also noticed on the very first page, two very blatant homages – Spider has a copy of “Fear and Loathing” and “Confederacy of Dunces” on the floor.
When did you first read Transmet? for me it was college, I think.
Paul: It was college for me as well…probably over the course of sophomore/junior years…it had just ended, I had started getting into some of Ellis’s other work, while also starting on Hunter S. Thompson’s books, so I dove right into these. I was all about angry writers with crazed, hilarious, furious prose. I think it was also right around the time of the 2004 election, which was the first presidential election I voted in.
Forrest: Perfect timing!
Paul: So I of course saw Nixon in The Beast, and Bush in The Smiler even though The Smiler is the ‘liberal’ candidate.
Forrest: Ellis really doesn’t let anyone off the hook in this. Not even Spider, to some extent.
Paul: No, in the second volume, we get a former intern who fell under the influence of a sex bomb, who Spider doesn’t even remember. And of course, the tossing of his wife’s frozen head off a roof (though we’re on Spider’s side with that one).
Forrest: I think that’s significant. Both events are sort of played for laughs, but behind the humor there’s a suggestion of something darker. I remember when I first read these books, I was on my college newspaper, and my love of journalism plus sci-fi made this an easy sell. But one of the reasons I left journalism was because I felt like to truly be a great journalist, to some extent you have to give up a bit of your own humanity…to be truly objective, you have to doggedly chase the facts, emotions be damned.
Spider is nothing if not dogged.
Paul: Though one thing seems to set off his emotions and that’s hypocrisy. In volume one, he’s set off by Fred Christ’s ploy for power and fame through the Transient Movement.
Forrest: I think when you boil away everything else away, all that’s left is anger. Although we do get some tender moments from him – with Channon, very occasionally. Also any time he encounters a true underdog.
Paul: Mary’s story in volume two is beautiful.
Forrest: oh my god yes
Paul: On page 111, when he kisses her on the forehead? Jeebus.
Forrest: Ellis marries that righteous anger against society’s injustices with the profound inspiration you get when you read something that challenges you to be better, because humanity has that capacity to be better, dammit. That’s absolutely one of my favorite issues.
Paul: (I don’t know what it says about me that my drunken rants often center on the potential of humanity to be better, but I hope it makes me like Warren Ellis).
It also pairs nicely with the issue proceeding it, with Channon’s boyfriend joining the foglets.
Forrest: Prooooobably my second favorite storyline.
Paul: Each group, the Foglets, and the Cryogenics are seeking to transcend their own lifetime. The Foglets seem to give up humanity, while insisting that they’re still a part of it.
Forrest: Exactly. Although the cryogenics want to have and eat their cake – they want eternity without giving up anything. While the foglets forsake their physical form in order to become something different. Greater, maybe? But certainly different.
Paul: There’s also a group that leaves the idea of the future behind: The reservationists. I had forgotten this issue until now, but it’s one of the more disturbing ones for me, mainly for the Mayan reservation (or the Mayan equivalent). That groups of people willingly sacrifice themselves to be a part of a reenactment.
Forrest: I like that storyline – it shows the romance of living in the past, but also has the reasoning to show that the past kind of sucked, because – exactly – human sacrifice, no penicillin, etc. But the disturbing thing is – what about the kids of the people who decided to be a part of the reenactment?
(and that’s where we come to M Night Shyamalan’s The Village)
(just kidding)
Paul: Hahaha. Well, there’s the moment on page 132 where two refugees from what I would assume is a Communist China reservation have escaped and found love that undermines the value of the reservations. At first it does seem like a good idea, playing off the “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” until you realize that they are in fact repeating it.
Forrest: Right, exactly.
Paul: It’s not like they’re playing out the Mayan scenario again and again to see if they can come out of it with a group of surviving Mayans.
Forrest: Haha, yes.
Paul: And that plays out in the larger world too, what Spider rails against, the people who want the status quo, who want to be lied to.
Forrest: Good point.
Paul: The one exception being the Farsight reservation (which I think plays a role in the end of the series too, but we’ll get there) which is based off of an idea of the future. Farsight DOES seem to exist to explore the new “This is a test bed for humans. Within these walls we seek to make HUMAN work, without all the shortcuts and get-outs like going Foglet.”
Forrest: Do they? What about their children who look like giant bugs?
 “they have sex using bacteria” Haha. That’s the one reservation i could never wrap my head around.
Paul: Well, it’s a perception thing, they probably see starting with a human base and building upon it as perfecting Humanity
  rather than abandoning the human body to the cloud.
Forrest: I see.
Paul: (ooh the cloud…tech buzzword!)
Forrest: Relevance! What really amazes me about all of this is the breadth of Ellis’ imagination. Like, it wasn’t enough for him to create this insane, tripped-out version of our future, he had to fill it in with all these subcultures and niche groups and really explore the whole spectrum of sci-fi. Because the future of humanity isn’t just the future version of…New York, or whatever (The City is definitely not supposed to be NY, but you get the idea), it’s the future of humanity as a whole, which already covers an unimaginably huge range of cultures.
Paul: Yes, within the first volume he gives us the Transients, humans that are transitioning via alien designer genes.
Forrest: Again – one of those things that just totally makes sense to me, like of COURSE in our future, people are going to mutate themselves genetically, not just for function, but for fashion. it’s the next step in body art/modification.
Paul: Then we get an issue on religion, which includes Ellis/Spider’s take on “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”
Forrest: So good – another one of my favorites. Spider as Jesus.
Paul: In spite of all the violence in the first volume, his beat down of the “icepick in the head” religious leader was probably my first instance of being taken a little aback by the brutality.
Forrest: “Read my fucking scripture!”
To be fair, the dude was going to put an icepick in his head.
Paul: Robertson can draw him some gore. And it’s the cartoonishness of the injuries that really does it. It takes things beyond real and somehow makes it more real in doing so.
Forrest: Yeah, there’s some brutal stuff for sure. Even just the imagery of Spider’s “Son” without that head…ugh. Reminded me of Arse-face from Preacher.
Paul: But so funny, and again, the second volume is only probably about 10 issues into the series, but they’ve done such a great job of world building, that along with Royce, we believe that Spider could have fathered a child without a head.
Forrest: Haha, yeah.
Paul: This mini arc, which contains a number of people conspiring against Spider, also has a meta(?) joke where portrayals of the future are concerned. In Blade Runner, in Firefly, they run with the prediction that China is going to be a much larger power, and become a part of the English language. But here, we have America WIN A WAR WITH FRANCE to assert the dominance of the English language. “Les Miserables” is “The Miserables.”
Forrest: Hahaha yeah, it’s brilliant. I was typing this earlier, but I don’t think I ever sent it – I know some people who liked Transmet less and less as it went on, (which I disagree with – I love it all), but I think that speaks to the power of these early issues. You do feel a bit disappointed when the plot catches up and becomes more central (even though it’s been going on quietly in the background throughout the whole thing) because a part of us just wants Spider to keep walking the beat, writing a new column every week into eternity.
Paul: So, before we get into THE PLOT, which really takes off in volume 3, I’m gonna cut us off, cause I’m starting to crash, but I think this is a good Part 1/coverage of volumes 1 and 2.
Forrest: sounds good – that’ll give me time to do more than skim vol 3
Paul: I’ll edit it together with some scans of panels and send it your way before I post in case you want to add anything.
Forrest: Awesome! Feel free to add extra words in to make me sound more eloquent…and capitalization.
Paul: I’m gonna make you sound like Gambit in 90’s X-Men comics.
Forrest: Perfect! That’s actually how I hear myself, in my head, mon ami.
Paul: And that’s round one of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan. Where can you read it? Via Amazon, Comixology for you tablet owners, or your local comic or book store.
Levar Burton: You can also find it at your local library!
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